Before Estancia High School students began auditioning for the upcoming play "Letters to Sala" in September, some of them understood only a few things about the Holocaust.
They knew about the concentration camps, gas chambers and Adolf Hitler.
But when rehearsals began for the play — based on the true story of a 16-year-old Jewish girl in Poland circa 1941 who goes to a Nazi labor camp in her sister's place — the cast of about 20 consumed several books, documentaries and films they had never touched in their history classes.
"I just knew [the Holocaust] as a horrible genocide, but I had never seen the perspective of the people who were sent from their homes and taken to the camps," said Amber Marroquin, who was cast as the teenage Sala in Estancia's play. "The shift in perspective was the biggest change for me."
In the play, Sala hides 352 letters exchanged with her family and friends while working in labor camps. Decades later, she gives the letters to her grown daughter, Ann Kirschner, in New York City.
Estancia senior Hannah Thunstrom, who plays Sala's companion in a labor camp, said she had studied the Holocaust for two weeks as a sophomore when her class was learning about World War II.
"We learned about the fight Americans put into it and less about what people saw and felt," Hannah said. "It was very brief for something so big."
But during their eight weeks of rehearsal, the students in the play caught up on the history by reading "Sala's Gift," Kirschner's book from which the play was adapted. They also enlisted social-science teacher Jon Williams and student Julia Paluch to give them some lessons on top of their regular school homework.
Julia, who was born in Poland, said her great-grandfather died while imprisoned in a labor camp. Her personal history helped her land the role of the school production's dramaturg, a person who deals with research to help the cast and crew prepare for the performance.
"We don't usually have a dramaturg" for Estancia productions, Julia said. "But since it's such a heavily historical play we're doing, the job was open to me."
Last week, the students visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where historical photos, artifacts and letters brought Hannah to tears.
"I read a letter an American soldier wrote to his family just after the war ended about seeing the concentration camps, saying there were people who looked like skin on bones … bodies on the ground with holes in their heads," Hannah said. "It's a lot heavier than what the textbooks will show you."
The play's director, Pauline Maranian, a fine-arts teacher, said she chose "Letters to Sala" as the school's fall play after Estancia alumnus Carlo Odicino suggested it last summer.
One of the reasons she picked it was that it fit the heavy girl-to-boy ratio in the drama program. But she said the cast members became heavily committed to their studies and other research in order to do the story justice.
Williams agreed that the students have a responsibility to convey the "truest nature of the Jewish part of the story."
"We need these oral histories and living testaments to check in the innate nature of man," Williams said. "There are dark forces and light forces that are constantly in conflict with one another. But the more we know about the dark, we hope that will make us want to spend more time in the light."
IF YOU GO
What: "Letters to Sala"
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2, 3, 9 and 10
Where: Barbara Van Holt Theatre, Estancia High School, 2323 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa
Cost: $10 for general admission. Tickets are available at the school's ASB office or at the door.